Friday the 13th! It is a rare date that is considered ominous in many cultures. Superstition is something that most in the world of football brush aside before big matches, though the Indian Football Team will be looking to spring a few surprises against their hosts Malaysia in the opening game of the Festival of Independence, also known in the local language as the Pestabola Merdeka.
India head coach Igor Stimac said on the eve of the Malaysia game, “We know about the good runs Malaysia have had in the past few months. They have a good coach and some wonderful homegrown players, who are very well supported by the naturalised players, so there is a lot of stability in the team at the moment.”
Malaysia have played nine international matches so far this year and boast an impressive record of six wins, two draws, and just one defeat.
“I believe it’s advantage Malaysia in the first game. Obviously, they are on their home turf and have had a good run here, but we are here to spring a few surprises against them,” said Stimac. “They have a very stable, competitive side with a clear idea about what they need to do on the pitch. We are also in a similar situation, but with the 90,000 supporters and with our record away from home, which has not been that great, it’s advantage Malaysia.”
India are well aware of the heritage and history behind the Pestabola Merdeka, having played the tournament 17 times. However, the Blue Tigers also have one eye on the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against Kuwait and Qatar next month.
“We know of the history and importance of this tournament, and we will do everything in our power to win the two matches and lift the trophy for the first time, but we also need to be mindful of our challenges coming ahead,” said Stimac. “It is very important that we do not risk any injuries, as we have two very important World Cup Qualifiers coming up in November.
“Being in Pot 2 of the draw for the World Cup Qualifiers, we have a very good chance to make it to Round 3 for the first time, and that is very important to us,” he said.
The India head coach also hailed his lads for the collective team spirit that the boys have shown in the last few months, over the course of the Tri-Nation Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, and the SAFF Championship, to win three back-to-back trophies.
“I feel our team’s strength and unity will be an advantage for us against Malaysia. We have played some very competitive tournaments and proved that we are rising. We won three tournaments at home, and now it’s time for us to improve our away record,” he said.
India centre-back Sandesh Jhingan is counting down the clock for the first match against Malaysia, a country that was, in a way, special to him during his formative years.
“Malaysia was the first country that I ever went to play football during my days in the school nationals, so that memory will always be special for me. It’s great to be back and to play in a historic tournament like the Merdeka,” said Jhingan. “I’ve read all about its history and heritage and it’s great to be a part of such an event.”
The 30-year-old is also looking forward to playing in front of a 90,000 seater arena in Kuala Lumpur. “As an athlete, you always want to play on the big stage, you want people to come and watch you,” he said. “It will be a difficult game as Malaysia are a good side, and their record speaks for themselves, but we hope to put in a good performance and enjoy our time on the pitch.”
Sandesh’s understudy, young centre-back Anwar Ali, feels that it will be a good experience for the Indian team to prepare for upcoming challenges.
“It’s going to be a good game against a very good side, who have shown that they are strong in front of their home supporters. But we also have confidence in our boys, and we will give it our best shot to win and progress to the final,” said Anwar. India’s match against Malaysia will kick off at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, at 6.30pm IST and will be broadcast live on Eurosport and streamed live on the Indian Football Team YouTube channel.